When is being old fashioned considered old hat? Take Kenneth Branagh’s previous take on Agatha Christie’s legendary Belgian detective, Murder On The Orient Express, that saw the director slap on a truly resplendent moustache, rope together an all-star cast and deliver a sweetly nostalgic throw-back that was fun despite me knowing who actually did it before I even saw the movie.
However, that was back in 2017 – in 2019, Rian Johnson gave us the magnificent Knives Out, a whodunnit that utterly changed the rules of the game to stunning effect. So the question is now this: in the face of such genre busting change, is Hercule Poirot’s (and by extension, Agatha Christie’s) methods just too old school for a generation unfazed by the prospect of a good old final reel deduction?
While taking some time out from wrestling with brain frying feats of mental deduction in the name of thwarting crime, detective Hercule Poirot chills out in Eygpt for some much needed downtime. Bumping into his good, party loving friend Bouc and his controlling mother Euphemia, Poirot is invited to celebrate the honeymoon of the disgustingly wealthy Linnet and her husband Simon as they and a diverse group of well-wishers, family and staff travel the Nile on a boat reserved just for them. Of course, this being a Agatha Christie joint means there’s some darkness lurking under the idyllic surface so six months prior, Simon was on the verge of getting hitched to Linnet’s friend Jacqueline de Bellefort and her subsequent dumping has left her following the couple around in a disconcerting manner. Bonding with the tragic Linnet, Poirot is nevertheless unable to protect her when she’s found one morning with an extra entrance hole in her noggin from a point blank gunshot wound and so the renowned sleuth has to shift into business mode to pick apart the numerous suspects who all seem to have a motive. So, who’s who in our little line up – first we have Linnet’s maid Louise, singer Salome and her manager (and Linnet’s former classmate) Rosalie, communist godmother Marie Van Schuyler and her nurse Mrs. Bowers, previous beau Dr. Linus Windlesham and finally, shifty laywer/cousin Andrew Katchadourian – and all of them have various motives that Poirot manages to tease out of them thanks to his mental dexterity and verbal gymnastics.
However, as he struggles to pin this particular case down, other murders start happening which admittedly succeeds in shortening the suspect list, but also makes it virtually impossible to narrow down the culprit. As time runs out and some secrets of Poirot’s own come to light, he has to double down if he has any chance of bringing the guilty party to justice.
It’s an inescapable fact that any whodunnit released these days probably needs to carry an extra a bit of oomph to stop it from feeling incredible outdated. Murder On The Orient Express was a slick, pleasant surprise thanks to its impressive cast and polished sheen, but in the subsequent years that’s given us the aforementioned Knives Out and even 2022’s fifth installment of Scream (also technically a whodunit – deal with it), Death On The Nile seems just that little bit too passè, especially considering how many times the book has been adapted for both tv and cinema. It also has a few other things going against it too, notwithstanding the presence of Armie Hammer which makes things tugs collar a liiiittle awkward… Anyway, apart from that, Death On The Nile also features some of the worst CGI vistas I’ve seen in a modern movie in years with an impossibly shiny Egypt looking as synthetic as a plasticine handgun which proves to be repeatedly distracting when you’re supposed to be concentrating on the people in the foreground and not the glowing pixels behind them.
The movie also seems to have picked up a mild dose of origin story-itis that’s been going around Hollywood these last few years and features a wartime flashback sequence that only seems to be there to show the birth of Poirot’s extraordinary facial fuzz and because Kenneth fancied trying out some of that CGI de-aging stuff on himself.
On the other hand, a lot of the stuff that worked in in Orient Express still works here with the MVP once again being Branagh’s marvelously particular lead who this time around displays a love for jazz, continues to wind everyone up with his questioning and once again nearly gives himself a mental breakdown trying to work things out. The sizable cast, who include Gal Gadot, Lelita Wright, Annette Bening, Sophie Okonedo, Russell Brand, Rose Leslie, Emma Mackey and even a reunion of French and Saunders all attack their various, varied accents with varying levels of success but don’t really stand out from the crowd mainly because the conventions of the genre mean that most of them don’t have the space to manuever beyond the boundaries of being mere red herrings.
Still, while falling short of great, this most recent adaption of Christie’s work is still a long way away from being bad and if Branagh ever gets a third go under the moustache (Murder Under The Sun, anyone?), then either the cast had better be legendary or the script better be slightly more innovative when bringing the author’s work to a modern audience.
Poirot’s latest ride is a perfectly fine slice of murder mystery hokum, but it’s old school charms could use a little dusting off to keep things relevant- unless the filmmakers are in complete and total… de-Nile.